Interview with the Recordist
Jerry Schroeder* interviews Gordon Hempton
Your recordings sound so lifelike and realistic. Is there studio trickery involved or are these actual "live" recordings?
Always live. It cannot be emphasized enough how selecting the right location is critical. I spend a lot of time pouring over maps, making phone calls, and then taking my best guess for when to go. Once on location I listen for the sweet spot-- where it all comes together. It’s nothing that I think about; I kind of go wild and just let my instincts rule.
What kind of equipment do you use when recording in the field?
Customized high-end with low self-noise, extended frequency response, and rugged. But it also helps to have a few cheap mics around for when it time to explore an unknown like a volcanic steam vent. My equipment has to be usable in the dark and under the worst weather conditions. I plan for bad weather and call it lucky if it’s good. It helps to glue bits of sand paper on the control buttons of the deck so your fingertips can navigate inside a closed bag. I replace noisy closures with quiet ones like buttons and ties. I pair up cables and mark channels with black tape so I can feel left from right, not see. A flashlight can really scare off wildlife. When I’m on location my equipment is always ready to go on a moment’s notice, already assembled and packed in bags that are loaded with enough desiccants to keep the humidity inside the electronics close to zero. I buy equipment from DPA, Neumann, Sennheiser, Sound Devices, Gitzo and Domke; then go to work on making them better. With all the time and expense of finding the right place, the last thing I want to do is fool around with gear.
I've seen photos of you with a mannequin head on a stick. What the heck is that thing?
Yes, my business partner “Fritz” raises a few eyebrows. This binaural microphone system (Neumann KU-81i) works over speakers and headphones and does an amazing job of capturing the experience of being there. It is the closest system to human hearing that I have found and I have tested nearly all. It is not widely used because there’s no blind side, if there is something that you don’t want in your recording, well that is a problem.
What does your editing workflow look like? Once you've gathered your raw recordings, how do you prepare them for the library?
Because I record at pristine places my editing workflow is simple. I catalog all my recordings in two passes. The first pass I listen to the background -- deleting all recordings with noise pollution--this moves ahead quickly, as I skip ahead. Then during the second pass I listen in real time while entering information into the database--event descriptions. I also place down markers at anything unusual that I might want to revisit later. My database today shows more than 7500 separate recordings, many are two hours long. After that the most time consuming part of my workflow is deciding what to include in the Quiet Planet® NatureSFX Library. At least four pairs of ears are involved: one person to select the file as a candidate, apply any DSP and create loop points when relevant, another person listens for technical errors, another person indentifies the species heard, and finally the fourth person listens and embeds metadata. Time editing is far less than time spent selecting a location.
I would like to become a sound recordist. Do you have any words of wisdom for someone just starting out?
I used to teach Joy of Listening at Olympic Park Institute and then taught Nature Sound Portraiture after that. For anybody that wants to become a nature sound recordist, don’t wait to afford the right equipment, just use whatever you have. But once you decide that you want to pursue this professionally then it is a whole new game. I strongly recommend that anyone just starting out take a tutorial from a professional whose work they admire--in less than a week you will be able to record at a professional level and then it is just about practice. I offer three to five day tutorials and all my previous students went on to do great work with no further instruction.
What's the most difficult thing you've ever had to record?
Difficult can be dangerous, or expensive, or technically impossible, or painful, or time consuming… the list goes on and on. Nothing worthwhile comes easily. I’ve waded past crocodiles (don’t do it), paddled a canoe at night through tidal currents, lost expensive gear to an unexpected ocean wave, been sick for months with more than one tropical disease, and once I just downright wept my guts out because the sound I came for doesn’t exist anymore. If you are pushing yourself to do your best then each time will be the most difficult. But this question deserves one line of credit: my wife, Julie, injured herself while I was away recording. This left her confined to a wheelchair with our four year old son and we had baby due in three months. I didn’t know what had happened for a week. I was shocked to find out but she told me to stick it out and get the job done. That project took me around the world and won me an Emmy. Difficulty does not necessarily apply to the person holding the microphone. I am indebted to her courage.
What is your favorite bird sound?
There are literally at least a dozen bird sounds that once I hear them they get stuck in my head like a jingle. If I were to have to pick just one, then it would be the White-throated Sparrow in the Essentials Collection because it sounds to me just so darn charming and innocent. But then, that would ignore the clear ringing song of the Western Meadowlark (also in Essentials). The Eastern Meadowlark is a bit more musical to my ears, and that reminds me of the Eastern Winter Wren’s beautiful tune--that would be it. Eastern Winter Wren, my final answer, when heard echoing through an ancient forest to give it that warmth.
What do you like on your pizza?
Can we make it wood fired? I usually order Death by Pizza (that’s everything and lots of it), but when I’m dinning with picky eaters we might settle on mushrooms, black olives, pepperoni, green onion, sun-dried tomatoes with anchovies on the side--and beer. Pizza always tastes better with a pitcher of beer.
Who is your favorite Beatle?
That’s easy--John. When the Beatles first played on Ed Sullivan in 1964, I was watching. That same year I bought my first tape recorder, a pair of skin tight jeans and joined the Beattlemania Fan Club. Goldfinger hit the theaters and every eleven year old at Lake Hills Elementary School wanted to be James Bond. I had my hair parted perfectly with VO5 and a long fine toothed comb. Twenty six years later Lennon’s Imagine would become my favorite tune of all time.
Are there any places left on your "bucket list" that you've yet to record?
My database shows 527 buckets to be made. Let’s pick a few… The mountains of Northern Venezuela where caves deep in the forest are home to the oil bird. I’d like to explore the soundscape of the cave and hear how the oil bird’s song sounds differently from its close relative the American Dipper. Great Sand Dunes National Monument, Namibia, Mongolia, and an area south of Morocco have singing sands--that has always intrigued me. Adak, Alaska along the Aleutian Islands is known as the “birthplace of the winds,” I’d like to record the sound of 50 mph fog.